A $3.2-million StudentAidBC program upgrade that aims to further move the student financial aid program online was announced by the Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology on Feb. 26.
“We want to make the StudentAid system more efficient for students,” said former Minister of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology and Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism John Yap, who stepped down from his ministerial duties on March 4. “Right now, it’s a pretty paper-intensive system, and it takes a while to get your application in, wait for an answer and then get your money. This project will modernize it, make it effectively paperless, and students will be able to apply online, receive quicker decisions and most importantly, receive loan proceeds faster.”
Though the current application system has an online option as well as the mail-in process, certain steps require a signed, mailed-in document. An application’s acceptance is acknowledged by a letter and a Master Student Financial Assistance Agreement that must be signed and returned by post.
Last year, 66 000 students received over $750 million in loans through StudentAidBC. Improvements are expected to eliminate 90 per cent of paper forms and reduce wait times on approvals and fund disbursements by March 2014. The ministry hopes to see some improved efficiencies by June for loans going towards the 2013–2014 academic year, says Lucia Heffelfinger Orser, director of external relations for the UVic Students’ Society (UVSS), who was briefed on the project.
“One of the big issues with how student aid functions right now is that there’s a number of steps that you have to physically mail in, which is a barrier for a lot of students to get their applications in on time,” she said. “Then they don’t have the money in their pocket until later in the semester, which of course can cause issues in terms of enrolling in your classes.”
It can take up to six weeks to process a loan application through StudentAidBC for both full-time and part-time students. Applications can be submitted as early as June for students planning to attend post-secondary that September, without the student having to be accepted into a program — the loan will come through once the institution confirms the student’s enrolment. Forms must be in at least six weeks before the end of the study period. Any reassessments, appeals or overaward repayments require an additional six weeks to process.
The upgrade project announcement follows the 2013 provincial budget, which outlines modest one-time investments into post-secondary education at the same time that it highlights the need for expanded skills training and education to meet labour market demand for workers accredited at post-secondary institutions.
Recent investments into B.C.’s post-secondary system include: the one-time, $1 200-per-child Training and Education Savings Grant to encourage families to start early education savings for children; funding to replace equipment at trades institutions; and the $3.2-million StudentAidBC technological upgrades project.
Orser said these investments are necessary but do not address the fundamental issues in post-secondary across B.C. She referenced interest rates on student loans, which are higher in B.C. than in other provinces, and said B.C. is the only province in Canada without a needs-based financial aid program for students.
“A trend with this government throughout is that some of these schemes, whether it be the education savings grant or whether it be the technological advancement program, they do come as a bit of a disappointment because they come at a time where there’s still an absence of these core issues being addressed,” said Orser.
The budget also mandates a $5-million cut to the post-secondary operating grant in 2013–2014 alone, which has spurred a four per cent across-the-board cut in all departments at UVic.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” said Orser, “but within the context of a multi-billion-dollar budget where UVic has to consider their capital projects and their businesses and all these different aspects of the university’s operations, the first thing to go, always, is services for students.”